It is time to take a look at the potential Atlanta Braves roster for 2018 as another season of baseball quickly approaches. Atlanta displayed an ability to play well for stretches in 2017 but ultimately finished with a disappointing 72-90 record. Expectations will be mixed for 2018 as the team continues to rebuild. However, a number of talented prospects should begin filtering through to the big leagues. With that in mind, here is how the Braves infield will likely look on Opening Day.
2018 Atlanta Braves Positional Preview – Infield
Catcher – Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki
The Braves have both Flowers and Suzuki returning from 2017. While there were a number of areas that Atlanta struggled in last season, catcher was a position that saw better than expected production. Combined, Flowers and Suzuki posted 31 home runs, 99 RBI, and 79 runs. Flowers posted a 117 OPS+ while Suzuki contributed a 130 OPS+, all while playing for a combined $5.2 million.
The biggest concern surrounding the position heading into 2018 is the possibility of regression on the part of each player. Both players set career-high marks in OPS+ during 2017 with Suzuki also setting a career high in home runs. Atlanta is more than happy to have the duo return for 2018, but is it wise to expect their production to be similar to 2017? It is true that SunTrust Park plays differently than Turner Field, and it could be the new stadium may be the perfect home for Suzuki’s bat. However, at this stage in their careers, it would be understandable if production for the position takes a step back this season.
1B – Freddie Freeman
First base, manned by Freeman, is undoubtedly Atlanta’s strongest position on paper heading into this season. Freeman took an incredible jump during the 2016 season and has posted a combined WAR of 11 over the past two seasons. He is arguably one of the best first basemen in all of MLB and has turned into a fearsome force in the middle of the Braves order.
One issue surrounding Freeman ahead of the season is the health of his left wrist. Freeman burst out of the gate in 2017 with mind-blowing numbers over the first two months of the season. Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured wrist after getting hit by a pitch on May 17. At the time of his injury, Freeman was hitting .341/.461/.748 with 14 home runs, 11 doubles, 25 RBI, and 35 runs scored in 37 games. While he did work his way back from the injury, Freeman was limited to 117 total games last season and clearly battled at less than 100% for stretches. He has already said publicly that the wrist feels strong ahead of Spring Training, but fans will have to wait and see if there are any lingering issues from last season.
2B – Ozzie Albies
Albies should begin the season as the Opening Day second baseman, despite being just 21-years old. The young player from Curacao debuted in 2017 and provided flashes of his top potential while appearing in 57 games for the Braves. He slashed .286/.354/.456 with six home runs, eight steals, nine doubles, and a 112 OPS+. The speedster also tied CF Ender Inciarte for the team lead in triples with five and finished tenth on the team in runs scored with 34.
Albies brings a lot to the table for Atlanta heading into 2018. He instantly improved the infield defense upon his debut and gradually improved his offense as the season progressed. With that said, Albies is a young player still learning his way in MLB. He will need to learn quickly and continue to make adjustments, but fans should be excited to watch Albies as he looks to be one of Atlanta’s core pieces for the future.
SS – Dansby Swanson
The former top prospect for Atlanta and number one overall pick in the 2015 draft presents a bit of an enigma for the Braves. Swanson had a strong showing down the stretch of 2016 after making his debut, and his performance was enough for him to headline many of the predictions for NL Rookie of the Year heading into 2017. Unfortunately, Swanson was never able to find consistent results last season, even making a trip down to Triple-A for 11 games. He did improve his walk rate and lower his strikeout rate from 2016 to 2017. However, his BABIP regressed heavily and led to lower marks across the board.
The question for Atlanta heading into this season is which Swanson shows up? Is it the one that hit .185 with 50 strikeouts over the first 50 games last season? Or is it the player who hit .302 down the stretch of 2016? The answer, hopefully, is somewhere in the middle. FanGraphs does project Swanson at a .270/.348/.402 line for 2018. While those numbers are solid, his wRC+ projection still comes in below league average at 96. It should also be noted that those projections have Swanson favored higher than most others. The ZiPS Projections from Dan Szymborski has Swanson at .254/.331/.385 with an 87 wRC+. Atlanta is not expected to compete in 2018, but this season will be an important one for the development of Swanson. The Braves need to find out if he can take the next step in improving his game or begin looking elsewhere for a long-term shortstop.
3B – Johan Camargo / Rio Ruiz
Third base is arguably the position with the biggest question mark on Atlanta’s current roster. Adonis Garcia, who showed promise early on before struggling in 2016 and battling injuries in 2017, has moved on to Korea. The Braves are returning Ruiz and Camargo and have added Charlie Culberson, but none of those players look equipped to handle the everyday duties. Ruiz hit just .193 in 53 games last season and Culberson has logged just 37 games at third over his career.
Based on the current roster and projections, Camargo would be the most likely choice to serve as the Opening Day starter at the position. He did show flashes with the bat while appearing in 82 games between 3B, SS, and 2B last season. Camargo also posted a 104 OPS+ with four home runs, 21 doubles, and 30 runs scored. Still, he looks best suited as a versatile utility player and pinch-hitter off of the bench.
With the current options listed, Atlanta may decide to make a move and sign a free agent third baseman ahead of the season. Todd Frazier is off the board, deciding to sign with the New York Mets, but other options remain available. The Braves may understandably decide against paying for Mike Moustakas, but it is hard to argue that he would be an upgrade at the position. Eduardo Nunez is another third baseman and utility player available, but his profile is very similar to Camargo’s and will turn 31 in June.
The Braves infield has plenty of question marks for 2018. Can Flowers and Suzuki replicate their 2017 success? Will Swanson make the jump to the next level as a player? Can Albies solidify his spot as Atlanta’s second baseman of the present and the future? Freeman remains the cornerstone of the infield and the franchise, but he will need to get some long-term help if the Braves hope to compete during his prime. It just remains to be seen if he will get much from the rest of the infield this season.
(Be sure to read Atlanta’s 2018 Outfield Preview here.)
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